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1/22/04 - RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN IRAQ - 2004-01-23

Iraqis are now free to voice their opinions and express their religious beliefs in public. That’s something they couldn’t do under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Thousands of Iraqi Shiite Muslims rallied recently in Baghdad in support of early, direct elections. They heard the positions of their religious leaders, including those of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a major Shiite cleric, favoring direct elections before the restoration of Iraq sovereignty on June 30th. The peaceful protesters waved banners and chanted slogans like “Yes, to unity, yes, to elections.”

The diversity of opinion, says Daniel Senor, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s senior adviser, is “a healthy sign”:

“Individuals and political leaders and religious leaders have for the first time [the ability] to speak freely and articulate an agenda and articulate their own vision for the way Iraq should look.... [W]e view that as a healthy sign and as something for the Governing Council to engage with those leaders about.”

Iraqi Muslims are also free to travel outside their country. This year, thousands of Iraqis are joining more than two-million other Muslims from one-hundred-sixty countries on the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s holiest site.

The Saddam Hussein regime limited the number of Iraqis who could make the journey. This year, thirty-thousand Iraqis will go, the full number allocated to Iraq by Saudi authorities. Nearly two-hundred-thousand Iraqis applied to go on the hajj, and the selection was mainly determined by a lottery.

Abdulrahman Abdulaziz Abdulla was one of those lucky enough to be selected. He told VOA that when he saw his name on the list, he “was so filled with joy. It was always my aim,” said Mr. Abdulla, “to go on the hajj.”